British Columbia

'We have a really dysfunctional system': advocate calls for improved services for children with special needs

Child welfare advocates are calling for funding reforms to a “dysfunctional” child welfare system in B.C. and argue fundamental changes are needed to improve access for children with special needs.

New report highlighted case of 'Charlie' who was neglected for years

Nothing in the horrifying report about "Charlie" was surprising, says Deborah Pugh. (CBC)

B.C. child welfare advocates are calling for funding reforms to a "dysfunctional" child welfare system and argue fundamental changes are needed to improve access for children with special needs.

A scathing report highlighting how the system failed a boy given the pseudonym "Charlie" was released earlier this week by B.C.'s representative for children and youth.

The report details how the boy experienced years of neglect, malnutrition and a lack of support for managing autism spectrum disorder.

"Nothing in [the report] was surprising: the recommendations weren't surprising; what happened to Charlie wasn't surprising," said Deborah Pugh, executive director of Autism Community Training (ACT).

The Ministry of Children and Family Development became aware of "Charlie" in 2006 while he was living with his single mother who was struggling with substance abuse.

Ten years on, in January 2016, the 12-year-old was found naked, filthy, unable to walk and weighing 66 pounds.

Deborah Pugh is the executive director of Autism Community Training. Her organization provides information and resources to families of children with special needs. (CBC)

Lack of communication

Pugh said situations like this case where families, particularly single parents who have high-needs children living in poverty, are not provided with robust support or active engagement are all too common.

Often, she said, it's due to a lack of communication between social workers for children with special needs and child protection social workers.

"What I've seen over the years is, ironically, ACT having to say to child protection, 'you really need to get the children and youth with special needs social worker involved,'" she told Stephen Quinn, the host of CBC's The Early Edition.

"Or the social worker saying to me, 'We have nothing for this family, unless it becomes a child protection issue.'"

In the case of "Charlie," no child protection social worker ever laid eyes on the boy, despite four separate child assessment reports by the ministry.

This type of situation points to a larger flaw of the system, according to Pugh.

"We have a really dysfunctional system," she said.  

Children with special needs are often pushed under the umbrella of child protection services but, Pugh said, an engaged family that's desperate to help their special needs child is seen as less of a priority than a child that's in immediate danger.

"They're often put aside for years, and I think that may be playing into what you've seen here [in the case of Charlie]," she said. "They didn't know the degree to which the family was falling apart."

Ultimately, she argues, it comes down to a lack of funding and training.

"We really cannot hold these people properly accountable, unless we give them the resources they need," she said.

Child welfare advocates are calling for funding reforms to a "dysfunctional" child welfare system in B.C. and argue fundamental changes are needed to improve access for children with special needs. 8:31

With files from The Early Edition

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